When one of my good friends texted me a photo of himself on October 2nd holding up a nice sized Coho Salmon caught in a river that flows into Lake Superior a few days earlier I was intrigued. He caught the fish while fishing with his wife's grandfather who is widely regarded as one of the best fisherman of our time. I was cordially invited to Ashland WI on the 11th of October where I would get to fish with my buddy Luke, his wife's grandfather and our other friend Danny.
During the next few days my mind raced with excitement. My sense of positivity rose even higher when news came of heavy rains in the area the weekend before my scheduled trip. Surely the Steelhead would be thick in the rivers and if anyone was going to catch them it was going to be me. Especially when I would be fishing with the masters!
Here is the photo of Luke holding up his Salmon that he texted me. My reply was, "Nice Photoshop".
On the evening of 10/8/2013 disaster struck. With only three days to go before my date with destiny I received a text from Luke informing me that, "It doesn't look good for taking Friday off".
I wasn't mad at Luke because who can blame a guy for having a job. I have had to cancel plans and reschedule things numerous times due to my crazy work life so I definitely understood. But the excitement that I had to fish with the masters was unwavering and after all, "Who needs Luke anyways?"
I put in a call to our friend Danny and arranged to stay at his house Thursday night so I could be there when he left to pick Eino up at 5:00am like they do almost every day.
We made it to one of their spots before sunrise. I'm used to fishing for Steelhead in the fast and rocky waters of the Brule but this place was neither fast or rocky. The current was slow and the river bottom was made of either sand or mud. The water was murky and I couldn't see the bottom. I wasn't there to question their choice of spots or their chosen methods. I was there to learn. I even left my fly fishing equipment in the Honda and opted to use my seven foot fast action St. Croix Avid series spinning rod and Shimano Saros 3000 series reel. I purchased that setup before becoming heavily enamored with fly fishing and it could be the last non fly fishing rod and reel that I ever buy for myself. I have heard the phrase, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" and although Ashland Wisconsin is a long way from Rome having another arrow in your quiver never hurts.
Describing the morning as beautiful would have been a massive understatement. It was almost like looking in the mirror but there was no mirror in sight as the the color of the sky changed from black to shades of purple, pink, cream and blue.
Their choice of bait was simple. Many times in life I am forced to create mnemonic devices in order to remember things and this time it would be unnecessary. Since the action was slow to begin with I decided to do it anyway. "Crawlers and Spawn, Crawlers and Spawn, from Dusk till Dawn, Crawlers and Spawn".
While Eino showed me his way of doing things I thought about how I could adapt these methods to my fly fishing setup substituting spawn with yarn balls and short rods with the long rod. Casting it out and leaving it sit, twitching it once and while or a slow retrieve are all ways one can work a crawler or spawn in efforts to get Steelhead and Salmon to bite. I've struggled using painfully slow and, "do nothing" retrieves in fly fishing although it has come to my attention in recent months that doing nothing can oftentimes be a more effective method at getting strikes than anything else.
It wasn't long before Eino had a fish on and I was the "Net Man". I missed it on the first swipe but achieved success seconds later. It looked to me like a nice sized Steelhead but as a testament to how closely Steelhead and Coho can resemble one another I watched as a guy who's caught hundreds of each check a few details on the fish in order to determine that it was indeed a Steelhead. While checking those things out he also determined that this fish was only 22 inches and not the 26 inches that it is required to be in order to keep. My hands were muddied and so was the fish which made it a bad time to try and get a photo so the fish was released without taking one.
I found this graphic on the Google to help you and myself if we are ever lucky enough to be in this situation.
We fished until close to 9am when the decision was made to call it a morning. While we boated back to the landing I snapped a few photos of my friends hoping to get a good one.
After saying goodbye to my friends it was time for the next leg of my journey. I would travel eastward along what I called the, "Gold Coast" of the south shore of Lake Superior exploring other rivers in search of the mythical Steelhead. The south shore earned the "Gold Coast" moniker because the leaves were in peak fall splendor, many of them in hues of yellow and gold. It reminded me of the color of my teeth when I go a few days without brushing.
Not too far up the shore there is the city of Washburn Wisconsin. A fish hatchery sits on the left side of the road as you enter the town from the south. I pulled in there remembering that Pikes Creek crosses the road just south of the hatchery and runs of fish occur there. When I pulled into my parking spot next to a Ford Focus the driver of the Focus wasted no time walking in the direction of the river. By the time I exited the Element he was long gone. I didn't even get a chance to say hello. I spent 20 minutes or so getting my fishing stuff together before setting off in the general direction of the creek.
Pikes Creek is a smaller creek and very sandy. I explored for a bit and saw no sign of Anadramous Fish when I became discouraged and headed back to my vehicle. The guy who ran off when I pulled up was getting ready to leave and we started talking. He even showed me a fresh coho that he pulled out of a plastic bag in his trunk and told me the secret to casting spinners at the mouth of the river. "You let it sink until it hits the bottom and then you give it a quick jerk to get the blade rotating followed by a retrieve just fast enough to keep the blade rotating. I mentioned that I was heading towards the Brule and he said he was heading back to his home in Hayward WI. He did say he would be making a quick stop at the Souix River on the way home because he only needed one more Coho to fill out his limit. I invited myself to tag along with him on his trip to the Souix. He accepted my invitation and seemed exited to show me this sanctuary pool near a campground at the barrier falls where you can look down from a cliff and see Lake Run Browns swimming alongside Salmon and Steelhead. Its called a sanctuary because you are not allowed to fish there.
We headed downstream to where it was legal to fish and my new friend Cody was eager to show me more of his secrets. Up leaving the car at the Souix I had opted for my spinning rod again because that's how Cody was fishing and I remembered again the words, "When in Rome". Cody's method of fishing spawn by using a long shanked hook and weaving it through the natural membrane was impressive. No spawn bags required. He would basically cast it out into the middle of a pool where you couldn't see the bottom and wait, moving it slightly every couple of minutes. A general rule while fishing Steelhead and Salmon is that they will hold in spots where you cant see them if possible. Cody headed downstream while I stayed behind and practiced his methods in a pool that he had just fished. I had little time to think about how much I missed my fly rod when I heard the noise of footsteps and breaking branches coming upriver from downstream. Sure enough it was Cody with a nice Coho that he had somehow attached to a stick in order to make it easier to carry. We shook hands and he headed on his way.
The geology of the Sioux River was impressive. The water has carved quite the gorge through the rock and my words can do it little justice. My only regret from visiting this place is not taking any photos while I was there although in the words of The Terminator, "I'll be back". I managed to catch two small rainbows drifting some egg sacks that Eino had giving me through a small run before deciding that most of the Salmon that didn't make it to the Sanctuary Pool had already been caught and kept. Here I was alone in a strange new land using a type of fishing rod that I mostly associate with memories of my youth. A song from one of the greatest rock bands of the 20th century popped into my head, REO Speedwagons "Time for me to Fly".
Once I made it to the town of Cornucopia I pulled into the parking lot of a municipal boat landing adjacent to where the Siskiwit River dumps its load into Lake Superior. I knew from some of my internet reconnaissance that this river is also one that receives a run of fish but couldn't remember if it was predominantly a spring or a fall run. I tied on a big purple baitfish imitation Streamer that my dad had given me when I dropped Foxy off at my parents house before heading north. On my third retrieve something hit it violently and it felt big. Whatever it was hit it again a few casts later again sending shock waves into my line that traveled up my pole and through my body. "Okay I guess there is fish here" I said to myself and I headed upstream to investigate.
Here is a photo of the streamer my father gave me when I stopped at his house on the way up. What a guy.
I wondered how many fish could have swam up through this in recent days. I hadn't seen any yet.
Here is a photo of the stripping basket. It is retractable so it can be put away when it is not in use. Try that with your plastic tub.
As I drove westward from Cornucopia the Sun was in the process of completing its westward journey over the horizon. My thoughts turned from Steelhead to where I would be sleeping for the night as I had neglected to plan this part of my trip earlier. I should have asked that woman I met on the Siskowet River where she was staying. If only I was as good at talking with women as I am at trying to catch Steelhead.
The town of Brule sits near where the Boise Brule River and Hwy 2 intersect. I have eaten at both the Kro Bar and the Twin Gables cafe in the past. On this night the Kro Bar was looking a little rowdy for my tastes so I opted to eat at the Twin Gables. While finishing dinner I finalized plans to meet my good fishing buddy Nick and his father in law Jeff at the main gas station in town of Brule at 7am following morning. After eating I parked my Element on the side of a street in the town and folded the seats down in order to create a flat surface to sleep on. It wasn't long before I was fast asleep.
Upon waking up the next morning I noticed that Nick had sent me a couple of texts.
I opted to continue laying down and waited for them to meet me in town. Nick had already suggested fishing where FF crosses the Brule and I didn't have any other place in mind so I went along with his idea. I did catch a Steelhead there this last spring so why not. When we arrived at the FF parking lot around 9am we found it empty. Within minutes of our arrival a guy showed up in a pick up truck and informed us that he was heading upstream. Nick and Jeff were about to head downstream when some other guys pulled up on the other side of the road and went downstream so they decided to go upstream. My morning coffee hadn't taken affect yet and I was taking my time setting up a "Chuck and Duck" style rig. Shortly after getting rigged up I caught up to Nick and Jeff where I started fishing what looked like, "good holding water". I fished there for a good while switching between nymphing and swinging streamers. It wasn't long before Nick and Jeff came back downstream mentioning that there was too many people upstream and they were going to try downstream of the bridge. I still hadn't completely woken up and I figured my pool was as good as any. At least I had it all to myself.
Eventually after not catching or seeing any Steelhead I slowly made my way downstream. I'd already had enough of the Brule and was going to suggest a change in rivers to Jeff and Nick when I caught up with them. As I made my way downstream I examined the river and imagined what route a Steelhead would take while swimming upstream. I casted into every little pocket that could possibly hold a fish. When I made it to a pool just downstream of the FF bridge I saw Jeff walking up the path that goes along the river and noticed that he was without his waders and walking barefoot. After talking to him I mentioned that I would go back to my car to get some boots for him since Nicks car was locked and Nick was no where in sight.
When I arrived back to the parking lot at FF it was now full of cars. I noticed three guys gearing up to set out on the river when I recognized one of them as Driftless Fly Fishing Legend Andy Roth from www.graygoatflyfishing.com. I was completely star struck. I walked over to him and shook his hand letting him know how much of a fan I am of him and his work.
I walked across the parking lot and started putting my stuff away in the back of my Element when I started talking to a guy who was parked alongside me getting ready to set out. I told him about some of my experiences the day before and we talked about how much of a challenge Steelhead fishing is and how we like it so much. He was about to set out on his way when he reached out to shake my hand and said, "My name is Chris by the way". As I shook his hand I said my name, "Eddie Rivard". He looked surprised and said, "Your last name is Rivard? That's my last name!".
Pretty much anybody with the last name Rivard in North America can trace their ancestry back to one of two brothers, Nicholas and Robert who settled in Quebec, Canada during the late 1600's. So whenever I meet another Rivard they are undoubtedly a cousin of mine. No wonder why Chris and I seemed to get along so well. Before we parted ways we exchanged business cards and Chris even gave Nick a couple samples of his favorite Steelhead fly. Later on that day Nick gave one of them to me.
Here is a photo of the fly that cousin Chris gave to Nick that Nick then gave to me. I don't know what the flies first name is but the last name has got to be Rivard.
The day was still young when Nick, Jeff and I headed to a river near Ashland that our friend Danny recommended to us. The hole that Danny recommended didn't look like Steelhead holding water to me so I started walking upstream hoping to find a place that looked a little more, "Steelheady". As far as I know Steelhead don't typically hold over sand and that's all this place was. I started to think that I would have a better chance running into a Sasquatch along this river than I ever would a Steelhead but I kept walking. When Nick and Jeff caught up to me they explained that they were planning on heading back to the cities at 4pm and it was already 2:30 so they were going to start walking back so they would have time to try another spot closer to town before they left. I had no interest in taking part in their plan because my plan was to finish what I started and that was to keep walking up this stream in search of water that looked, "Steelheady". Call me, "hard headed" but Steelhead were what was on my mind. Before Nick and Jeff left I launched into a speech about what it takes to fish for Steelhead. I don't recall everything I said but I do remember borrowing some words from Johnny Cash's, "Boy Named Sue" song when I talked about having, "Gravel in your gut and spit in your eye". I also told Nick that if I didn't call him before 10pm that night it might be a good idea to send in the searchers.
I started walking fast because I knew my daylight was limited and wasn't entirely sure how far it would be until I reached the next bridge. After a while I renamed this place, "Sandy Creek".
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